This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, translated from the Swedish by Patty Crane.
It was before the time of radio towers.
Grandfather was a new pilot. In the almanac, he wrote down the ships he guided—
names, destinations, drafts.
Examples from 1884:
SS Tiger Capt. Rowan 16 ft. Hull Gefle Furusund
Brig Ocean Capt. Andersen 8 ft. Sandöfjord Hernösand Furusund
SS St. Petersburg Capt. Libenberg 11 ft. Stettin Libau Sandhamn
He took them out to the Baltic, through the wonderful labyrinth of islands and water.
And those who met on-board, and were carried by the same hull for a few hours or days,
how well did they get to know each other?
Conversations in misspelled English, understanding and misunderstanding but very little deliberate lying.
How well did they get to know each other?
When the fog was thick: half speed, nearly blind. Out of the invisible, the point appeared
and in a single stride was right on them.
Horn bellowing every two minutes. His eyes read straight into the invisible.
(Did he have the labyrinth in his head?)
The minutes passed.
Shallows and rocks memorized like psalm verses.
And that feeling of “we’re right here” that must be held, the way you carry a brimming pot so nothing gets
A glance down into the engine room.
The compound engine, long-lived like a human heart, worked with large smooth recoiling movements, steel
acrobats, and the smells rose as if from a kitchen.
Wind enters the pine forest. It sighs heavily and lightly.
Likewise the Baltic sighs in the island’s interior; deep in the forest you’re out on the open sea.
The old woman hated the sighing in the trees. Her face hardened in melancholy whenever the wind picked
“You must think of those who are out there in the boats.”
But she heard something else in the sighing, as I do; we’re related.
(We’re walking together. She’s been dead for thirty years.)
It sighs yes and no, misunderstanding and understanding.
It sighs three children healthy, one in the sanitarium and two dead.
The great breath that blows life into certain flames while blowing others out. The conditions.
It sighs: Save me Lord, the waters are come in unto my soul.
You walk for a long time and listen, reaching a point where the borders open
where everything becomes border. An open place thrown into darkness. People flow out of the dimly lit
buildings around it. There’s murmuring.
A new breath of wind and the place is desolate and still again.
A new breath of wind, murmuring about other shores.
It has to do with the war.
It has to do with places where citizens are under control,
where thoughts are built with emergency exits,
where a conversation between friends is really a test of what friendship means.
And when you’re together with those you don’t know so well. Control. A certain candor is all right
just don’t take your eyes off whatever’s wandering the edges of the conversation: something dark, a dark stain.
Something that can drift in
and destroy everything. Don’t take your eyes off it!
What can it be compared to? A mine?
No, that would be too stable. And almost too peaceful—since on our coast most of the stories about mines
have a happy ending, the terror time-limited.
Like in this account from the lightship: “The fall of 1915 we slept uneasily . . .” etc. A drifting mine was sighted
as it floated slowly toward the lightship, falling and rising, at times concealed by the swells, at times glimpsed
like a spy in a crowd.
The anguished crew shot at it with rifles. To no avail. In the end, someone launched a boat,
secured a longline to the mine and cautiously towed it all the way in to the experts.
Afterwards, they set the mine’s dark shell in a park’s sandy garden as an ornament
together with shells of Strombus gigas from the West Indies.
And the sea-wind enters the dry pines farther away, hurrying over the cemetery’s sand,
past the leaning stones, the pilots’ names.
The dry sighing
of giant doors opening and giant doors closing.
In a half-dark corner of the Gotland church, in a softly mildewed light,
there’s a sandstone baptismal font—12th-century—the stonecutter’s name
still there, shining forth
like a row of teeth in a mass grave:
his name remains. And his images
here and on the sides of other urns, crowds of people, figures on their way out of the stone.
The eyes’ seeds of evil and goodness burst open there.
Herod at the table: the roasted capon flying up and crowing “Christus natus est”—the servant was put to
next to the child being born, under clusters of faces as dignified and helpless as young apes.
And the fleeing steps of the pious
echoing over the dragon-scaled mouths of sewers.
(The images stronger in memory than when you see them directly, strongest
when the font spins in the slow rumbling carousel of the mind.)
Nowhere the lee side. Everywhere risk.
As it was. As it is.
The only peace is inside there, in the vessel’s water that no one sees,
but on the outer walls the battle rages.
And peace can come drop by drop, perhaps at night
when we don’t know anything,
or like when you’re lying in a hospital room on an IV drip.
People, beasts, ornaments.
There is no landscape. Ornament.
Mr. B, my affable travel companion, in exile,
released from Robben Island, says:
“I envy you. I feel nothing for nature.
But people in a landscape, that speaks to me.”
Here are people in a landscape.
A photo from 1865. The steamer’s at the pier in the sound.
Five figures. A lady in pale crinoline, like a small bell, like a flower.
The guys resemble extras in an old peasant play.
They’re all beautiful, uncertain, on the verge of fading out.
They step ashore for a moment. They fade out.
The steamer’s an obsolete model—
tall smokestack, sunroof, narrow hull—
it’s utterly strange, a UFO that’s landed.
Everything else in the photo is shockingly real:
the ripples on the water,
the opposite shore—
I can run my hand across the rugged rock face,
I can hear the sighing in the spruce.
It’s close. It’s
The waves are up-to-date.
Now, one hundred years later. The waves come in from no-man’s-water
and pound against the stones.
I walk along the shore. It’s not like it used to be to walk along the shore.
You have too much to take in, too many conversations at once, you have thin walls.
Each thing has acquired a new shadow behind the usual shadow
and you hear it dragging along even when it’s totally dark.
The strategic planetarium rotates. The lenses stare into the darkness.
The night sky is full of numbers, and they’re fed in
to a twinkling cabinet,
a piece of furniture
housing the energy of a locust swarm stripping acres of Somalia’s land bare in half an hour.
I don’t know whether we’re at the beginning or in the final stage.
A synopsis can’t be given, a synopsis is impossible.
The synopsis is the mandrake—
(see the reference book of superstitions:
that would give such a horrendous shriek when it was pulled out of the ground
the person would drop dead. A dog had to do it . . .)
From the lee side,
Bladderwrack. In the clear water the seaweed-forests shine, they’re young, you want to emigrate there, lie
stretched out on your reflection and sink to a certain depth—the seaweed that holds itself up with air
bubbles, like we hold ourselves up with ideas.
Bullhead. The fish that’s a toad who wanted to be a butterfly and made it a third of the way, hides in the
sea grass but is drawn up in the nets, hooked by its pathetic spines and warts—when you untangle it
from the mesh your hands gleam with slime.
Rock Slab. Out on the sun-warmed lichens insects dash, they’re in a rush like second-hands—the pine
casts a shadow, it wanders slowly like an hour-hand—inside me time stands still, infinite time, the
time it takes to forget every language and invent perpetual motion.
On the lee side you can hear the grass growing: a faint drumming from below, the faint rumbling of a million
small gas flames, that’s how it is to hear the grass grow.
And now: the water’s expanse, without doors, the open border
that grows broader and broader
the further you stretch out.
There are days when the Baltic’s a calm endless roof.
Dream naively, then, about something that crawls out on the roof and tries to untangle the flag-lines,
tries to raise up
the flag that’s so tattered by wind and blackened by the smokestack and faded by sun, it can be everyone’s.
But it’s a long way to Liepāja.
July 30th. The bay has become eccentric—today jellyfish are swarming for the first time in years, they pump
themselves calmly and gently forward, they belong to the same shipping company: AURELIA, they drift
like flowers after a sea burial, if you take them out of the water their entire form disappears, like when
an unspeakable truth is lifted up out of the silence and expressed as lifeless gel, yes, they’re
untranslatable, they must stay in their own element.
August 2nd. Something wants to be said but the words don’t agree.
Something that can’t be spoken,
there are no words but maybe a style . . .
You might wake up during the night
and quickly throw some words down
on the nearest paper, in the margins of the news
(the words radiant with meaning!)
but in the morning: the same words don’t say anything, scribbles, slips of the tongue.
Or fragments of the great nightly writing that drew past?
Music comes to a person, he’s a composer, performs, makes a career, becomes director of the conservatory.
The fiscal trend declines, he’s condemned by the authorities.
They set up his student K as the head prosecutor.
He’s threatened, demoted, sent away.
After a few years, the disgrace lessens, he’s reinstated.
Then the cerebral hemorrhage: right-sided paralysis with aphasia, can only grasp short phrases, says the wrong
He’s therefore beyond the reach of advancement or blame.
But the music’s still there, he continues to compose in his own style,
becomes a medical sensation in the time he has left to live.
He wrote music to lyrics he no longer understood—
in the same way
we express something about our lives
in the humming chorus of misspoken words.
The Death lectures lasted for several terms. I was present
together with classmates I didn’t know
(who are you?)
—afterwards everyone went their own way, profiles.
I looked to the sky and to the ground and straight ahead
and since then have been writing a long letter to the dead
on a typewriter that has no ribbon, just a thread of horizon
so the words knock in vain and nothing sticks.
I stand with my hand on the doorknob, taking the pulse of the house.
The walls are so full of life
(the children don’t dare sleep alone in the upstairs guestroom—what makes me feel secure makes them
August 3rd. Out there in the damp grass
a greeting from the Middle Ages slides past: Helix pomatia,
the subtly glistening gray-yellow snail with its house askew,
introduced by monks who loved escargots—yes, the Franciscans were here,
broke stone and burned lime, the island was theirs in 1288, a gift from King Magnus
(“Thes almesse and othere suche / thei meeten him nu in hevenriche”),
the forest fell, the kilns burned, the lime was sailed in
to build the monastery . . .
stands nearly still in the grass, tentacles sucking in
and rolling out, disturbances and hesitation . . .
How it resembles me in my searching!
The wind that blew so carefully all day
—on the outermost isles every blade of grass is counted—
has quietly lain down in the inner island. The match-flame stands straight.
The sea painting and the forest painting darken together.
The greenness of the five-story-trees also turns black.
“Every summer is the last.” These are empty words
for the creatures of late summer midnight
where crickets sew on their machines as if possessed
and the Baltic is close
and the lonely water faucet rises up from the briar roses
like an equestrian statue. The water tastes of iron.
Grandmother’s story before it’s forgotten: her parents die young,
father first. When the widow realizes the illness will take her too,
she walks from house to house, sails from island to island
with her daughter. “Who will take care of Maria!” A strange house
on the other side of the bay accepts. Where they can afford it.
But those who could afford it weren’t the good ones. The mask of piety cracks.
Maria’s childhood ends abruptly, she works like a servant without pay
in the relentless cold. For many years. The relentless seasickness
during the long stretches of rowing, the solemn terror
at the table, the looks, the pike skin crunching
in her mouth: be thankful, be thankful.
She never looked back
but because of this she could see The New
and take hold of it.
Get out of the encirclement!
I remember her. I’d nestle up to her
and at the moment of death (the moment of crossing-over?) she sent out a thought
so that I—a five-year-old—understood what had happened
half an hour before they phoned.
I remember her. But in the next brown photo
there’s the unknown man—
dated by his clothing to the middle of last century.
A man in his thirties: the heavy eyebrows,
the face that looks me straight in the eye
and whispers: “Here I am.”
But who “I” am
is no longer someone that’s remembered. No one.
One time he stopped
on the stony grass-steaming slope up from the sea
and felt the black blindfold over his eyes.
Here, behind the dense brush—is this the island’s oldest house?
The squat 200-year-old log fishing hut with heavy, gray, rough-hewn timbers.
And the modern brass lock that’s clicked it all shut, shines like the nose ring of an old bull
who refuses to get up.
So much huddling wood. On the roof, ancient tiles collapsed into each other every-which-way
(the original pattern disturbed by earth’s rotation through the years)
remind me of something . . . I was there . . . wait: it’s the old Jewish graveyard in Prague
where the dead live closer together than they did in life, the stones close close.
So much encircled love! The roofing tiles with lichens’ script written in an unknown tongue
are the stones in the archipelago folks’ ghetto-graveyard, the stones raised up and toppled—
The hovel shines
with all those who were carried by a certain wave, by a certain wind
out here to their fates.
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This poem originally appeared in the American Poetry Review.